How women can advance to CFO roles

Building relationships can help you get ahead, says one female CFO.
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· 3 min read

Amy Alost remembers a time when there were very few women in finance. She recalls “too many years of walking into rooms with three, four, five hundred men; three, four or five females,” she told CFO Brew. As one of that handful of women, she couldn’t help but stand out.

So she chose to embrace her difference. Those rooms, she said, were packed with “two-piece gray, black, or navy suits.”

“I learned to wear pink, red, or green,” she said, so when her colleagues wanted to introduce someone to her, she was easy to find.

Alost, CFO of Integris Solutions and advisory board member of the Dallas chapter of the CFO Leadership Council, has been happy to see more women advance into the CFO seat. When asked what advice she’d give women who aspire to CFO roles, she replied simply, “Go for it.”

Beyond that vote of encouragement, she had other advice to share.

Go beyond the technical. You need more than technical skills to succeed as a CFO, Alost said. People are taught to focus on the technical early in their finance careers, she said, but “at some point you better [develop] relationships on top of the technical. The relationships are what carry you forward through your career and into those upward positions of management and leadership.

“If you want to get in there to the C-suite, you’ve got to lead, not just manage, and that means you’ve got to be able to…collaborate and communicate,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to understand what [people are] really saying, or understand what they’re not saying, or understand what they think they know, but they missed.”

Learn your business. Alost sees herself as a connector. “My job is to enable the operations side, enable the sales side, and execute the CEO’s vision,” she said. “I’m the one that’s the bridge between all the parties, or the glue, the binding.”

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To build those relationships, “You’ve got to know the business, and you’re never going to do that if you’re just sitting behind your desk,” she said. “Get up, walk around, take the pulse, find out what’s going on. Know the guts of the business and know who does what. Find where they need enabling and start enabling.”

Be strategic. Many people come to CFO roles from comptroller roles, Alost said, where there’s a heavy emphasis on reporting and “checking the boxes.” Detail-oriented and technically adept people thrive in those roles.

But to make it to the next level, she said, you need to think strategically.

“The ones that make it up into the finance positions are the ones who understand where that data came from and how it’s connected to the business,” she said.

They also keep an eye on trends and market changes, and are able to “understand what the tailwinds are that are going to push the business forward…and understand what it’s going to take to keep those tailwinds coming,” Alost said.

That’s true even when the trends seem, at first glance, to be bad news.

“CFOs have a common phrase: ‘You never waste a good crisis,’” Alost said. “You've got to know how to embrace the market headwinds that are coming at you. You’ve got to work with your leadership team and your CEO to make sure everybody’s on the same page” about how to keep changes from disrupting your business, she concluded.—CV

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.